When Nell Stevens was offered the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world to research and write a novel, her choice stood in stark contrast to her fellow Boston University M.F.A. students. While her classmates decided to jet off to Rome, Madrid, and other colorful, historic cities, Stevens opted for a far more desolate alternative: she would spend a few months in the cold, rocky Falkland Islands and cap it all off with 41 days in a house on the uninhabited Bleaker Island.
"I wanted to learn how to be alone, comfortably, without guilt." -Nell Stevens
In her resulting novel, Bleaker House, the author details her months of conservatively rationed food, brisk winds, and brushes with vicious caracaras. The result is part-fiction, part-diary, and finds Stevens exploring the struggles of writing and the stifling burden of solitary existence.
Now back at home in the U.K., Stevens shared her biggest lessons from her time spent completely alone.
Lesson No. 1: Being Alone Is an Art
"Before going to the island, I had a very fraught relationship with being alone. I have always been someone who craved solitude, but I was also quite judgmental of that impulse. I felt guilty about it. It seemed to be a failing, somehow, to have that need for time alone, and so I never really enjoyed being by myself. I worried about things I was supposed to be doing elsewhere, people I was supposed to be seeing, opportunities I might be missing."
"Creative people have a tendency to let their minds wander, which is an essential part of having ideas and producing art, of course, but can also make solitude quite complicated."
"Curiosity about this tension was a huge part of why I chose to write my novel on Bleaker Island. I wanted to learn how to be alone, comfortably, without guilt. I knew solitude was something I needed on a personal level, and a large part of the life of any writer, so I wanted to master the art of it."
Lesson No. 2: Turn Off the Unnecessary Noise
"Creative people have a tendency to let their minds wander, which is an essential part of having ideas and producing art, of course, but can also make solitude quite complicated. If, while you are alone, your mind is busily turning over things that have happened or are happening elsewhere, solitude can feel like a trap. The noise of the rest of the world is ongoing and just as loud, even if it's only in your own head. You feel separated, cut off, shut out."
"I have learned to listen to the silence as well as the noise, to notice that the situation I am in, whether on a remote island or a crowded train, is a complete world in itself. When I got back to my 'real life' after being on the island, I did notice that I was more aware of my surroundings. I have become less distracted by thoughts and worries about the places I am not, and more secure inhabiting the place where I am, wherever that might be."
Lesson No. 3: Self-Discipline Is Everything
"When I was on the island I became very disciplined about exercise. It was a way of getting out of my head and into my body, and made me feel stronger for the rest of the day. I was also fairly meticulous about planning my time; I was scared of losing track of what I was doing and finding out hours had passed without my noticing. Still, that did happen a few times."
"For those few weeks, my responsibility was to myself alone."
"More broadly, I found it helpful to remind myself that there was nowhere else I was supposed to be. Nobody needed anything from me, or expected anything from me; for those few weeks, my responsibility was to myself alone. That's such a rare, privileged experience, an extraordinary opportunity-staying focused on that was extremely helpful."
Lesson No. 4: Sometimes It's Good to Be Uncomfortable
"The first step [to becoming more comfortable alone] is acknowledging that discomfort isn't always a bad thing. There is a value in it, even if all it teaches you is to appreciate comfort more. Once you've learned to endure it, you can move on to enjoying it.
Being alone is a luxury, and like all luxuries, is more precious if it is limited: set an end point for your solitude. Knowing it will be over soon will help you savor it."
Lesson No. 5: You Might Not Get the Results You Expected-and That's OK
"The anxiety I felt before I went to the island-about my career and my writing, and also about my relationships-has abated. The value of putting yourself through any challenge, whether it is heading off to an island to write a book, or running a marathon, or performing any of the small and significant personal braveries life demands of us, is that the aftermath is so calm. I did this difficult thing-other things seem less scary now."
"What I know now, which I did not know on the island, is that I did come away from that experience with my first book; that even if things didn't go completely to plan, in the end, it still worked out. When I was really struggling with the novel I had gone there to write, and it was dawning on me that the story I was telling was not the right one, it felt as though my journey had all been for nothing. In the middle of hard work, it isn't always apparent what the benefit of it will be. But there is a benefit; it will be worth it; your novel might fail but your memoir might come together. Progress comes in many forms, and probably never the one you'd imagined."
Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World by Nell Stevens (Doubleday Books), $26, indiebound.org.